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Tarry Feet and Slimy Dogs

Stuck with the Consequences of an Earlier Era’s Overconfidence


If there’s one truth that seems to come back to haunt us where energy production is concerned, it’s the Law of Unintended Consequences. Take Summerland, my home these past eight and a half years.

Those of us who live in Summerland are proud of its quirky history: first a spiritualist community with 25’ x 60’ tent lots and a community séance room; after that, a hub for oil development, including the world’s first offshore oil well (a dubious honor). Old pictures tell the tale, with wooden oil derricks and hundreds of wells. Production lasted a good 40 years, up to World War II. But as past is prologue, so promises of control over the consequences of human invention—be it oil wells in the past or fracking and nuclear power today—are not to be relied on.

Lee Heller

Summerland’s abandoned near-shore wells—so damned near that at very low tides you can sometimes see old pipeline—have a tendency to spring the occasional leak. You see, the cutting-edge technology of the time had oil producers using old logs and telephone poles, rocks, whatever, to plug up abandoned wells. To quote The Independent quoting Office of Emergency Services’ Michael Harris, “The wells were either just abandoned or capped inappropriately … really, whatever they could do to stop the leaking was used.” I’m sure they were confident of their mastery of the situation at the time.

Retrospect is clearer sighted. In the past year, Summerland beach walkers have noticed much more than the usual occasional tar ball. The tar has been almost constant, the patches huge; and with them comes a slick film of oil that smears the beaches and makes our dogs’ coats slimy after a swim. This is pollution, folks, the real world consequences of insufficiently regulated energy production.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, responding to a flood of calls, brought in the main players—the County Office of Emergency Services, the State Lands Commission, and the state’s Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR)—and asked the Board of Supervisors to look into the issue. Among the results have been meetings of county and state personnel, huddled at the beach at lowest low tides (once at 7 a.m., yawn-time for most of us) to look for the source point and clean up the mess left by those reckless oil men of 80 years ago. It isn’t a cheap or easy task, and although we have better technology these days to stop the leak once we find it, I’m told that more leaks are inevitable over time.

So, Summerland’s shore residents—human and non—are literally stuck with the consequences of an earlier era’s overconfidence.

Is it any surprise then that I’m more than a little worried about recent news that Venoco has been fracking up in Los Alamos? Fracking, if you don’t already know, is slang for hydraulic fracturing, wherein water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals (unknown contents: the industry’s dirty trade secret) are injected deep underground to gain access to otherwise inaccessible oil or natural gas. The companies involved assure us that the process is harmless, with no negative environmental impacts.

But property owners from Pennsylvania to Arkansas report illness, livestock deaths, and, in some cases, tap water so pregnant with methane that they can light it on fire. (Doubt me? Watch the documentary Gasland and see for yourself.)

So do we trust Venoco and other oil companies when they promise that they have control over fracking and its consequences? We trusted BP when they solemnly swore that their blow-out preventers would, well, prevent a blow out—and how’d that work out?

Walk the Summerland beach sometime. It might make you think really hard about how far we humans can be trusted to control the consequences of our innovations.

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Lee Heller lives in Summerland with a fluctuating population of dogs and cats.

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